I love handstands, muscle ups, and pistol squats as much as the next guy. But not because they’re particularly functional, or natural, or any other buzzwords. When someone asks why I practice them, the only reason I can come up with is “Just because.”
I think they’re fun, and I feel good doing them. Who cares if there are better ways to build upper body strength? And how much unilateral stability of the legs do we really need to develop for day-to-day life? These moves aren’t a goal in and of themselves. They’re a step above party tricks, but I don’t care.
When I move, I move for me.
I move to explore and express. I want to explore my body and my surroundings. I want to express my capacity and my self. There are no sick gains, and I’m not too concerned with PRs. It’s a joyful practice, one that’s rewarding for its own sake. Everybody (and every body) is capable of getting to this point.
I didn’t get here by accident. In fact, there’s a systematic framework that allows us to find such freedom in our practice. We can think of it in two stages: prerequisites and play.
Prerequisites for a Joyful Practice
Because we live in a physical body that follows physical rules, we need to be mindful of those rules. When we aren’t, we expose ourselves to needless injury and stalled progress. We get good at what we do often. We get better when we gradually increase the stress.
We’re human animals that have adapted to an alien environment. We suffer from a lack of both quantity and quality of movement, a wicked combination if ever there was one. Flat floors, climate-controlled rooms, uniform textures, and everything else we know and love have left us in bodies that just don’t work the way bodies should.
Nature doesn’t need a warm up. You and I do.
So how do we get this body back on track? There are three main stages.
Think of this as mapping the territory. You wouldn’t go on a long road trip without a working GPS. How can we practice effectively and efficiently if we don’t have a clear sense of what we’re working with?
I find that the easiest way to tune in is to spend a few minutes lying on the floor. When you’re there, ask yourself:
- What’s your embodied understanding of your central axis, the spine?
- How familiar are you with the three bodyweight centers of head, ribs, and pelvis?
- Do you carry your weight evenly on both sides of the body?
If you don’t have a good grasp on self-awareness, you’re going to have a hell of a time controlling your body in more complex tasks. Forget handstands, snatches, and the rest. Get familiar with your body in stillness. Then own it in motion. Which brings us to…
The biggest limiting factor we’re going to come up against is mobility. As we’ve talked about before, mobility is pretty important. If your joints can’t actively control the required range of motion, then we’re not equipped to perform that movement.
If you want to practice handstands, you better be sure your wrists can move into 90° of extension and your shoulders can reach all the way overhead. If you want to squat, your ankles need adequate dorsiflexion, and hips need to be able to flex too.
A safe way to check your prerequisites is to see if your joints can actively move into the range of motion you need to access. Can you actively extend your wrist 90°? Can you actively flex your ankle into its necessary range of motion? If not, you don’t control that range of motion. And when you don’t control that range of motion, you do not pass “Go” without setting yourself up for injury. When you have adequate control over your joints, our next step is…
Finally, something that looks like training! When we build capacity, we’re focused on those familiar traits of strength, power, and cardiovascular endurance. I don’t need to tell you much about this. There are plenty of smart people on Breaking Muscle who do that.
When we establish a foundation of awareness, mobility, and capacity, then it’s time to play. This is where we really start to pick up new skills and find freedom in our practice.
The Power of Play
As Frank Forencich of Exuberant Animal says, “Absence of play is not a sign of maturity, it is a sign of pathology.” Play is pretty difficult to define, but there are certainly some common themes:
- It’s movement that isn’t directly related to survival
- It’s spontaneous and voluntary
- It isn’t work
- It often involves repetition with variation
- It requires an absence of stressors
Some folks simply sum it up by saying that play occurs when animals are warm, fat, and happy.1
Why Is Play So Effective?
Play really taps into our primal neural wiring. In a nutshell, our nervous systems crave a few things:
These factors are the fundamental architecture of our neural performance. If we have an immediate threat or stressor nearby, we revert to survival mode. Once we’re safe, we can work on functional tasks: moving from point A to point B, picking things up, and so on. And variety is brain candy. We aren’t machines, and we don’t work like them. Time and time again we see that variation enhances the acquisition of new skills.
An emphasis on play brings a new level of autonomy to your practice, which is also linked to improved motor skill learning.2 When you set your own rules, enjoyment goes up, and perceived exertion goes down. You learn and perform more without the feeling of grinding through rep after rep.
Now we start to get a clue as to why play is so effective for skill acquisition and better movement. It’s inherently stress-free, it brings about variation in habitual patterns, and it’s just plain fun. Really the only goal of play is to continue playing; if we happen to accomplish some extraneous task (like a handstand) along the way, so much the better. Who could ask for more?
Move For Your Own Sake
How nice would it be to let go of the compulsion around your practice? There’s no need for the nagging thoughts of:
- I should be doing XYZ
- I really ought to blah, blah, blah
- I’ll never be as cool as that-one-guy-I-follow-on-Instagram
Your practice is your own. And it can be infinitely rewarding for its own sake.
Once we get our bodies back to baseline it’s time to unbox our practice. Who cares about calories? What does lifting more weight let us do? Training only takes us so far. Movement connects us to ourselves, our environment, and the people around us. In this somatic ecology there is a beautiful context for growth, both physical and emotional. That’s a joyful practice.
Life is too short for fitness to be so serious:
1. Lewis, Kerrie P. “From landscapes to playscapes: The evolution of play in humans and other animals.” The Anthropology of Sport and Human Movement: A Biocultural Perspective (2010): 61-89.
2. Wulf, Gabriele, and Rebecca Lewthwaite. “Effortless motor learning? An external focus of attention enhances movement effectiveness and efficiency.” Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in Attention and Action (2010): 75-101.